The AHS Launch

February 24, 2009

I fully intended to write this as soon as I got back from London, but one thing and another have stacked up and I’m doing this to take a break from essaying. It’s a relief to write my own opinion on something I care about instead of just the opinion that will get me marks on something boring.

So on Thursday, Andre and I travelled down to London to represent the Humanist Society at the official launch of the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies at Conway Hall, home of the Ethical Society. The AHS is the umbrella union we were talking about creating a year ago in order to share ideas and resources with all the other irreligious societies around the UK. We held the inaugural conference in David Hume Tower over the summer, and Stuart and Greg attended the second conference in Leeds. It was a superb venue, and one that the AHS will be able to use again for other big events in the future.

The launch itself was attended by such prominent figures such as Richard Dawkins, AC Grayling, Polly Toynbee and Maryam Namazie. I already had Dawkins sign my copy of Unweaving the Rainbow at the Edinburgh Science Festival last year, but that’s who most of the others were really excited about. Instead I got a nice message in my copy of AC Grayling’s Against All Gods.

Each of the speakers gave really supportive messages of the idea for the AHS and encouraged us to work as an ideas factory for the movement as a whole. Dawkins also spoke about how evangelical religious organisations did not belong on university campuses as they poisoned minds and disrupted education. Perhaps more importantly, he said that the AHS would be well place to apply for funding from the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. Apparently this was a particularly difficult charity to set up, and at one point he needed to clarify to the government what benefits science and reason bring to society, as opposed to religious groups which have no problem.

In any case it was good to finally meet the people I’ve been corresponding with over the internet for some time. We’re thinking the next conference should be in Warwick, but we’ll see. Keep your eyes peeled for media coverage (although a lot of it has already passed – we got a 2 page spread in the Independent and a fair bit of coverage on BBC Radio). More information at:

Be prepared for another post soon as I’ll crave procrastination and this is at least mildly useful.

Occupation Over

February 16, 2009

As I’ve posted previously, we agreed that we’d achieved everything we could at this occupation. With that in mind, we left George Square Theatre this morning at 8.45am. More details at Edinburgh University Occupation for Gaza.

Occupation update

February 14, 2009

Still here at George Square Theatre. At the moment we’re watching a film called Sands of Sorrow. It’s kind of boring so I thought I’d blog instead.

So today I spent most of the day outside speaking to non-student protestors. There’s a frustrating situation where the university is refusing to allow anyon who’s not a member of the university into the building. This means we have people showing up outside to show us support and join the occupation, realising they can’t do very much and moving on. It’s also freezing outside so people inside are reluctant to come out. That said we’ve had a core group of people coming to our stall outside to help us hand out flyers, and generally just to have a chat. I’ve been sitting outside each evening and the dedication of some people is astounding.

Last night after I blogged a group of musicians came and played us some brilliant original music, and then we had a really long meeting to discuss the university’s response, which they’d said was final. Again using the consensus decisionmaking process (something I’m really glad I’ve been introduced to), we decided that we’d done everything we could with this occupation, and acknowledged that we had achieved a lot of our aims. Those that we hadn’t achieved, or those that we thought we could achieve more with, it’s perhaps more feasible to act upon them through the normal channels, or through further demonstration in the future. For example the university thinks it would be unethical to “deny access” to graduate job opportunities at companies making arms used by Israel by banning them from careers fairs. Of course this argument doesn’t stand up at all, they’re not denying access, the access to the jobs is still there through normal channels. All banning them would do is stop the university indirectly condoning their actions. But we can better act against this by demonstrating at the careers fairs and working through EUSA. I think the majority of us knew it was time to leave.

Seeing as the university administration is not around during the weekend (particularly Melvyn Cornish and Tim O’Shea), we decided that we would leave on Monday morning before lectures start. In the meantime we’ve been using the space to try to mobilise more support, hold workshops, screen films and hold lectures, in order to keep momentum and create a group which is ready and willing to hold the university to account over what it’s agreed to do.

As part of this we held a demonstration outside the front of the building, attended by just short of 100 people in total. To start with, a choir called Protest in Harmony came and sang some protest songs. This was the best thing I’ve ever heard, with lyrics like [paraphrasing] “the Venezuelans sent the Israeli ambassador home, for its flagrant disregard of international rules” (which was apparently taken straight from a newspaper article), but set to choral, hymn-like music. It was phenomenal, and got a lot of people outside who probably wouldn’t have otherwise been arsed. Then the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign showed up (who have also been great, they’re obviously very used to speaking publicly and one of their members, Mick, has MC’d both of these demonstrations, which helped it go a lot smoother) and we got a demonstration going. Several people spoke out, and we got a lot of signatures on our petition.

So things are going well.

Still here…

February 13, 2009

So I stayed overnight and we briefly prepared our response to the negotiations with the university. I’ve had a couple of classes and I went back to the Chaplaincy to sell more chocolate for the DEC Gaza Appeal. Now that I’m back, I’ve been watching some of the protestors doing a workshop on resisting arrest. At first it was quite practical like going limp instead of tensing your muscles and trying to calm the situation, but then it kind of degenerated into deep breathing and saying words at different volumes, and all the time lots of hugging. Personally I think preparing for such an eventuality is a bit paranoid, but it was quite good entertainment.

One thing that is mildly annoying me is that other issues are getting sneaked into the agenda. A lot of these protestors are really really liberal and have more interests than just this, so during the negotiations, some of the demands are having other things added to them. For example, we stipulated in one demand that any aid getting transported to Gaza gets shipped because it’s better for the environment. Fair enough and I don’t think anyone here disagreed, but it’s not really what this is about, it shouldn’t be in the demands.

Another, perhaps better example, is that one of the demands was to disinvest in any company producing weapons that are being used in Israel. I fully supported that, but then during this morning’s discussion, points were raised that the demand should be to disinvest in all weapons research. Not only do I think this is totally unrealistic and will make the protestors seem juvenile, but I also don’t think it’s desirable. Weapons are necessary for war, and war is sometimes necessary, at least in the current global anarchic system. I do hope for a day when weapons will not be necessary and there will be world peace, but the way to reach world peace is not through getting rid of weapons. Weapons are merely the tools, war would still exist without them. But regardless of whether it’s a good thing or not, it’s nothing to do with us. This demonstration is against this conflict in Gaza, not all war, as if that would be achievable. This is not an anti-war demonstration in general. Of course the Socialist Workers have been slipping their own familiar rhetoric in too, but that’s fine, they’ve been great supporting us so far.

Consensus agreement is also becoming more difficult as we get into the finer points, particularly because people are coming and going all the time so if we review something we’ve discussed before, some people don’t know what we’re on about, and others disagree with something we’ve already put through the consensus system. It’s difficult because I’m in agreement with the broad message, but some things about the protest are so frustrating.

One thing that picked up morale a bit was that an Eden Springs van came to deliver water this morning, and as some of us rushed down to tell them to get lost, security did it for us! So far the security guys have been brilliant, they’ve had no problems with us getting in and out (although so far they’re only letting UoE students in), and they’ve all been really friendly.

We got some news today that an emergency SRC (Students Representative Council) meeting was called to discuss the issue by a very pro-Israel member of the committee, and that their intention was to release a EUSA statement against the demonstration. Adam Ramsay, Naomi Hunter and Guy Bromley came down a few minutes ago to let us know what’s going on, and the SRC did not agree on that statement. Instead Adam paraphrased the statement they will be releasing, and they’re not saying anything, basically.

I’ve no idea how long I’ll be here but I’ll be popping in for a few hours each day until it’s over. Here’s some more photographs.

Gaza Protest

February 13, 2009

As I type this I’m sitting inside George Square Lecture Theatre, which I’d say is quite an unusual thing to do at 2.30 in the morning. At 12 midday yesterday, several activists at the University of Edinburgh moved into this hall and refused to leave until several demands were met by the university, and although negotiations have been taking place, the occupation is still ongoing. The initial demands, which I consider fairly reasonable, are as follows:

1. Boycott: That the universityimmediately suspend all contracts and relations with companies enabling the conflict and/or occupation, including Eden Springs. This demand is contingent on access to information to establish which other companies, eg. Agrexco-Carmel are implicated.

2. Disinvestment: That the university divest from and cut all links – specifically on-campus recruitment – with BAE Systems, MBDA, QinetiQ, Rolls Royce and all other “arms and defence” manufacturers whose products are proven to be in use by the Israeli military.

3. Scholarships: That the university make full scholarships available to at least 5 university students in Gaza, allowing them to attend Edinburgh University – this is specifically in response to the destruction of their universities by the Israeli military, and otheracademic restrictions which violate their human right to education.

4. Aid: That the university collect and make available non-monetary donations to war-damaged Gazan schools and hospitals, including but not limited to text-books, chairs, computers.

5. Education: That the university provide logistical and financial suport for a series of informative lectures and debates, involving university staff and guest speakers, on the Palestine/Israel question during the academic year 2009/10

Regular readers may notice that I’ve so far been silent on the Gaza conflict. This is because I recognise that my view, which is that Israel has no right to exist, is not the best way to achieve peace in the region, and that’s what we all want.

At about 1, we finished a discussion on the response the university gave to the first round of negotiations. Everything is being decided using a fairly effective consensus system, which means it takes quite a long time, but I think the benefits far outweight the disadvantages. There are other frustrations: the people who come to these kinds of protests, not that I’m being overly critical, tend to finish all their sentences as if it were a question (long term readers may remember I have a big beef with that), and sometimes use vocabulary which is clear to people they’re used to campaigning with, but not to others. That said, people are getting along surprisingly well so far and we all know we’re here for a reason. There are about 40 people here now, but I did a quick count during the discussion and there were over 50, and when I was here this evening before our Darwin Day celebrations there were many more, including a lot of non-student protestors, such as the Socialist Workers.

So, depending on how long the occupation goes on, I may be reporting from here over the weekend. Similar demands have been met in Glasgow and Strathclyde Universities, and I’m told there are 26 such occupations happening in universities around the UK, so I don’t think it’s too optimistic to be hopeful.